Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Postscript to the tragedy or otherwise...

We have been beating about the central bush in the comments to the last post, wondering whether the affaire Robinson can be described in terms of classical tragedy.

My essential conjecture was that the affaire may be perceived as a tragedy if we look not to the specifics of the people (she being hostile to gays, etc, and, as Lucy hints, who knows what we might discover about him) but at the specifics of the situation. That is the way drama works. We don't know everything about the characters involved in it, only what is necessary for us to apprehend the events as a drama.

The related conjecture was that certain things happen in what we call 'real life' that, in the way they unfold and in the choices they present, approximates to art; that if art is a mirror to life, the moment of the passage through from one side of the mirror to another is the tragic moment.

Once the characters are through the mirror they are no longer simply themselves. They are symbolic figures in the imagination. Something like this happened, I think, in the relationship between the life and poetry of Sylvia Plath. It seems, in some way, she chose to take the passage through. The figure we remember is the one at the point of crossing. That, at least, is the position she holds in the imagination. As for the reality? Reality is elsewhere, where it no longer matters.I have immortal longings in me, says Cleopatra in Shakespeare's play. Then she steps forward and becomes the symbol the play had been preparing her for from the start. That sense of stepping forward is what interests us. Not whether she wore green underwear, picked her nose, or was a bigot in the scenes we don't see. Or whether in real life she was everything art cracked her up to be.

But surely we cannot detach the persons from the symbols they become? No, we can't, but we strip them of everything but the choices they faced within the drama prepared for them.


This was going to be a short post but I can see it can't be as short as I intended. Let me start elsewhere, beat about another bush if you like, and try to find my way back if I can.

In the comments to the post below we were speculating whether Iris Robinson was in the grip of passion or was merely feeling - as Mark put it - an itch that she was arrogant enough to think she could satisfy without consequence. We tend to think passions are in some way grand and noble, whereas itches are there to be controlled. Ascribing passion to this woman, some might feel, would be to excuse her.

On the relatively ignorant but important instinctive level I felt this was a case of passion, not so much because she was having an affair (lots of people have affairs) but because she took the risk of providing money she was not entitled to so that the object of her passion could set up his life. If it was an itch, it was an itch gone mad. The risk she took seemed to me the act of a person out of control. Who, in any case, knows when an itch becomes a passion? I suspect it does so pretty regularly.

It takes two to have an affair. There is the object (in this case the young man, presumed handsome, vigorous and, above all, young) and the subject (powerful but aging, driven by furies - even bigoted furies are furies - that are frustrated). At fifty-nine the subject may be grasping at the last straws of youth. What began as itch could easily pass over into passion and madness. The ego is frail, the body is desperate for reassurance. All things pass. One would give anything to stop it passing. And people do.

We do not find Iris Robinson an attractive figure in life, but this is an existential predicament in which an existential choice presents itself in a form we all secretly understand. We understand it in so far as we understand the pull of desire and vigour and the fear of weakness, incapacity and death. We understand it but we cannot act on it, nor can we fully admit it. Life closes in and we don't want to be closed in but we have responsibilities, affections, security - love even. And still we feel closed in. That, we suspect, is our greatest given existential predicament. Our truths pull us two ways at the same time. The tension is intolerable, so we act as though there were no such tension.

How do you become brave? someone asked. You do it by acting bravely, came the reply. You act. You act as if. You assume the form of your aspiration. You don't even want to know you are assuming it. You want to become, and may become, the thing itself, But the truth of the tension remains. It rolls in waves under dreams and produces shadows and myths.

In tragedy the choices we reject becomes choices that are accepted. That is what the figures in tragedy are there to do. They are there to accept what we reject. This isn't just a matter of criminality. A criminal's arena of choice is a mean little place we wouldn't want to enter most of the time. The arena of passion is different. There the choices are not so clear cut, if only because they are passions, not social ethics. There the ghosts under the waves are larger, the shadows bigger, the figures through the mirror more haunting and imposing. Desire, terror, and power are the big figures in the big arena, and maybe desire - for a while at least - is the biggest. Out of those figures and the spaces through which they move - their arena - we make art. The arena is the poem, the story, the drama.

We know transgressions carry danger. Here, in shadow world, the dangers can perform their ritual revenge.


So maybe we can detach Iris Robinson from the woman whose politics we don't like, whose statements we abhor. Those are part of her catalogue of faults but when it comes to the moment of choosing to take a lover and go for broke, her other qualities diminish. The catalogue is much reduced. By the time she reaches that point she has become the shadow figure who chooses what generally we cannot, in an arena we don't inhabit, an arena within which she already occupies a dramatic role of some kind. Power - and she is associated with the seat of power - is a dramatic force.

It is, by no means, a case of saying: What a tragedy that such a good / heroic / admirable person should come to harm. We don't because we don't believe her to be good, heroic or admirable. It is the very fact that she is flawed, and that one flaw leads to another, eventually to disgrace or madness or death, and that the waves travel out from this into every part of that arena that makes her subject for tragedy.


I have left Peter Robinson out of this because he is - for now - easier to defend, and, for that very reason, is less interesting. For now. His fate remains to be seen. It is the very fact that Iris Robinson is not to be defended that enables her to cross the threshold of the mirror. Power, passion, discovery, devastation, madness, suicide and general collapse are rarely brought together around a single figure.

And in any case, she may, as some suggest, be taking refuge in 'madness; and 'suicide attempts', or may emerge a sadder and wiser woman, or just a ridiculous and somewhat repulsive old bat. If so, that is not tragedy. It may be farce, or it may simply be a drama, even a storm in a teacup. So Gwilym may be perfectly right in the end. But the tragic form is there, the stage is set.

I have always thought that the last days of János Kádár in Hungary, and of Mrs Thatcher as prime minister in the UK, were the stuff of opera. Maybe someone will commission me to write the libretto. Nixon in China, anybody?


Nicole S said...

It's a case of "Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée". Or more prosaically, love is like being chained to a lunatic. I don't think the British appreciate the elemental force of passion the way the French do, for example. And poor old Iris's age only underlines the depth of her derangement. Passion can strike at any time. Bring on the opera, maybe with some comedy as well as tragedy.

Kathleen Jones said...

I can't help but observe (living currently in Italy) that Iris Robinson is being condemned for doing exactly what a certain Silvio Berlusconi is being admired for over here. And do sexual exploits have anything to do with a person's ability to do a job? but perhaps (being of a certain age) I'm just envious!

George S said...

Yes, that's it exactly, Nicole. A madness we recognise and half-admire - like divine madness - as in the lunatic, the lover and the poet. But we only half admire it, surreptitiously, with the mad part of ourselves.

And something like your observation regarding Berlusconi had occurred to me, Kathleen. It may be that the more moral North (Byron says something about that, maybe in Don Juan) would not so readily wink at Berlusconi's capers and itches. And yes, I imagine a woman would get very different treatment in Italy.

I have - like most people, I expect - often thought about the nature of desire or sexual drive in men and women but, not being a woman, I am unwilling to theorise too far.

However (as ever)...

My hunch, based on reading and observation, would be that the drives and desires are not the same - but whether they follow what are deemed to be the traditional patterns (men / lust / any time / emotional detachment v. women / romance / perfect occasion / emotional involvement ) is impossible honestly to say. I suspect they may be part of some truth, though historical and cultural factors complicate whatever part of the truth they may be, nor is it in anyone's direct interest to be truthful in such matters. Which may be why women have written less overtly and less frequently about their own drives and desires. The risks of vulnerability are very high for women. Or so I imagine.

Which takes me back to Nicole and (divine) madness. Art has to admit the truth in some symbolic form, or it's not art only artfulness. My suggestion was that the actions of Iris Robinson in this case conform to a key symbolic shape. It is the fate, and task, of the lunatic, the lover and the poet to meet.

As to the question of whether one's ability to do a job is affected, that might depend on the degree of madness - the amount of fou in amour fou. If one took the traditional division as given it might be less affecting on men than women - but then these are truisms, and even if the truisms were partly true there would be far too many exceptions to make sense of.

High pressure work might well increase pressure in all kinds of ways and sex might be a necessary channel of anxiety and relief.

And a (beautiful) woman once said to me she didn't like it when people told her she was beautiful, because losing beauty eventually would be all the worse.

Edward Wilson said...

Hello George,
You admit that Iris Robinson is not an 'attractive character' - albeit in real life. I hope you agree that the best tragic characters have something about them that is attractive. So it must be the task of the dramatist/librettist to make Iris attractive - phew, what a mountain to climb. She is no Marschellin and the butcher's son is no Rosenkavalier. I think Jacques Brel treats the provincial boobiness of the Robinsons and their ilk with the contempt they deserve in songs like Les Bourgeois and Les Flamands. Now, George, when you write that opera tragedy, would you consider the Profumo Affair? It destroyed the lives of three men and brought down not only a UK government, but sounded the death knell (long overdue) for the old order.
Best wishes,
Edward Wilson

Diane said...

I cannot resist a comment or two, George. I am following your discussion with great interest and do agree with you. (There is a gender issue here but let's put that aside altogether.)

"When", I ask myself, "does a symbol become merely a cliche?" When does tragedy become cliche and thus farce? I am struck by your concept of "crossing through the wall". For it to be tragedy, we must stop at the very moment of disgrace. If we go further, the matter and the players do beome mere cliche, even if they fall apart or commit suicide. The word "tragedy" is then entirely within the minds of the actors, not the audience.

In reality, passion actually becomes daily life within a short time, just as before. The hubris is in the moment of "crossing through the wall". Thereafter, the story becomes dull for the observors -- no more drama. Annie Dillard caught this understanding and the lonely grief that accompanies 'the very ordinary' (the threat of cliche) with great compassion in The Maytees. But her work is neither drama nor tragedy. It is meditation.

The tragic must have discrete elements in the act of the crossing that can take it beyond the fact that the subjects are no more than mere cliches themselves, heh?

In other words, there is no tragedy in the itch that is desire. That is mere cliche, however tragic it may feel to the participants.

It is in the audience that the elements cohere as tragedy -- or not. Sadly, the actors have no "say" in the audience's reception to the cliche of discrete passion and its reception.......apart from your fascinating commentary on "the brave".

Now, if you can make sense of that, you are a miracle mind!

George S said...

Thank you for your intervention, Edwrad. You are always welcome here.

There's attractive and attractive, and still another attractive. From the little I know about her, Iris Robinson is morally unattractive and, in all likelihood, for me at least, socially unattractive. Nevertheless she has, as they used to put it, 'regular features', has long (now) red hair and looks a vigorous woman of a particular age. It may be that Lady Macbeth was the same, or Imelda Marcos, or indeed Margaret Thatcher. Such people have an effect though the effect may not be on us. The fact that we don't like or approve of her does not remove that effect on others. Objectively it may exist. Objectively, in this sphere, and in this sphere alone, she is acting on that stage and has the attributes to do so.

As for Peter Robinson being a butcher's son, would it be better if he were a lawyer's son? An architect's son? A miner's son? I don't trust our hierarchies of preferred genealogy.

I take what you say about Brel and the bourgeoisie but I am cautious of anything that dismisses individuals in terms of class and other broad category. It's the liberal in me. I am quite happy with the Marxist account of history and economic interest, but it doesn't solve everything. And some Marxists would regard my own attitude vis-a-vis individuals, as bourgeois in this respect. How could I ever live that down! (I feel a little smily icon should follow but I don't have the heart for it.)

It may b,e as Marxist critics have argued,(eg Fintan O'Toole in his book, 'No More Heroes), that since tragedy is a drama about individual fate it is an inherently bourgeois form.

In any case, if there is a gender issue here, as Diane suggests (and I am pretty sure there is), I suspect I might need to listen more carefully to the women in this case - the case being that of a woman - than to the men. Though the idea is to listen to everyone.

George S said...

Diane - I do think it is about the point of crossing. You are right (of course you are!) that, after the crossing, after the tears, the pain, the dust and rubble, life goes on on the 'real' side of the mirror. What happens on the far side is a compound of dreams that may become art.

The passing-through is the tragic element. My argument is that we can all imagine such passings-through, and think, as we watch someone else passing through, that that could have been ourselves, at any time, but that we were stronger and so chose not to make the passage. We rejected the passing through. And indeed we are stronger for rejecting it - that, at least, is my own long-held belief. Not that a belief is guaranteed proof against madness.

Yes, the audience apprehends events - in art at least - as tragedy or not tragedy. But the audience is only an audience because it can imagine itself as art. Being audience, I feel, is not the same as being onlooker. It is part of the form.

And you are also right, I think, that the real act of passing-through, under most circumstances, is not necessarily tragic, except possibly to the actors.

Art is different in this respect, isn't it? That's why - or so I think - Tragedy with a capital T is not the inscribing of personal tragedy, but the formal representation of an event that sends waves through the whole arena, the kingdom, the fiefdom... whatever the arena is. Tragedy, in this respect is, perhaps, simply a particular form, much like a sonnet is. It matters to us because it offers meaning and shape, as all art does, and because, like all art, it takes place elsewhere.

My argument here has been that it may be best for us to admit the existence and power of the form, and all that comprises it, because it will admit itself in any case, as dream, as shadow and, in its most consciously refined form, as art.

I will not write any more posts on the Robinsons because they are merely the locus of a theme with the makings of a form. In themselves I knew and cared little about them before, and I doubt I will care very much in the future. Unless Ireland implodes.

I am, of course, very happy to continue with comments, which is where blogs can really come into their own.

Gwil W said...

George, I don't know if we have the full facts in our tabloids here in Vienna, but this story is gathering strength: now almost on a par with the unfolding Caroline of Monaco divorce case.
What we are being offered in is the real juice; it's claimed Iris bedded not only the son but also his father.
George, this takes us to the next dimension and well away from tragedy.
The front covers of the next week's True Story hair salon mags await the photos. Boris Becker, QE2, Charles and Camilla please move over ... it's the Caroline and Iris show!

Lucy said...

So glad this one's had such a good run! I have found myself pondering pity, terror and catharsis at some length while tidying the fridge and putting out the bird food during the long snow-in.

I have to admit that my discomfort and revulsion at her must be something to do with her being female, not that I'd admire a man for putting it about in the same way or anything, but it wouldn't have the element of vulnerability and precariousness somehow, and she must have been fairly bonkers about the young man to have taken such risks and give him so much, rather than just amuse herself and cast him aside. Perhaps there's even a bit of Jocasta in that?

I also fell to thinking that although one is supposed to feel sympathy in spite of oneself at the tragic hero, and they are always dislikeable I think, I'm not sure that I do. Perhaps really one doesn't have ever to come to like them, just to come closer to understanding them, and to admiting that 'there but for the grace of God...', that's the terror I suppose, as you say, that they go where we all know it's possible to go but are lucky or timid enough not to.

There's usually someone in tragedy to feel genuine pity for, isn't there? Antigone, Cordelia, Desdemona, or even just MacDuff's wife and kids, the poor, brave, innocent but painfully aware, victims, usually women and/or children, who cop for the collateral damage.

When it got to the blood and thunder Jacobean revenge tragedies, I'm not sure the rules held up; then it was all monsters and victims, a much cruder kind of pity and terror, and the catharsis was probably just in getting through it.

Not very coherent reflections, and I'm still not convinced about Pete and Iris, but ideas worth pursuing!